Diagnosing Your Car Problems Using Your Five Senses

Looks Like Trouble

  • A dark brown or black oily fluid could mean the engine is leaking oil. A bad seal or gasket could cause the leak.
  • A puddle of clear water under the car is not usually a problem. It may be normal condensation from your vehicle’s air conditioner.

Smells Like Trouble

  • The smell of burned toast — a light, sharp odor — often signals an electrical short and burning insulation. To be safe, try not to drive the vehicle until the problem is diagnosed.
  • A thick acrid odor usually means burning oil. This can cause your engine to catch fire.
  • The smell of gasoline vapors after a failed start may mean you have flooded the engine if you have an older car. Most cars built in recent years won’t have this issue. If you have a newer car, this most likely means you don’t have an ignition, and will need to tow your car to a shop.
  • Burning resin or a chemical odor may signal overheated brakes or clutch. Check that you aren’t driving with the parking brake engaged. Stop. Allow the brakes to cool after repeated hard braking on mountain roads. Light smoke coming from a wheel indicates a stuck brake. The vehicle should be towed for repair.
  • A sweet odor could indicate a coolant leak. If the temperature gauge or warning light does not indicate overheating, drive carefully to the nearest service station, keeping an eye on your gauges. If the odor is accompanied by a hot, metallic scent and steam from under the hood, your engine has overheated. Pull over immediately. Continued driving could cause severe engine damage. The vehicle should be towed for repair.

Sounds Like Trouble

  • Defective exhaust pipe, converter or muffler.
  • Worn universal joint or other drive-line component.
  • Worn crankshaft or connecting rod bearings.
  • Loose transmission torque converter.
  • Loose shock absorber or another suspension component.
  • Loose exhaust pipe or muffler.

Feels Like Trouble

Steering

Ride and Handling

  • While there is no hard and fast rule about when to replace shock absorbers or struts, try this test: bounce the vehicle up and down hard at each wheel and then let go. See how many times the vehicle bounces. Weak shocks will allow the vehicle to bounce twice or more.
  • Springs do not normally wear out and do not need replacement unless one corner of the vehicle is lower than the others. Overloading your vehicle can damage the springs.
  • Balance tires properly. An unbalanced or improperly balanced tire causes a vehicle to vibrate and may wear steering and suspension components prematurely.

Brakes

  • The vehicle pulls to one side when the brakes are applied.
  • The brake pedal sinks to the floor when pressure is maintained.
  • You hear or feel scraping or grinding during braking.
  • The “brake” or “ABS” light on the instrument panel is lit.

Engine

  • Difficulty starting the engine.
  • The “check engine” light on the instrument panel is lit.
  • Rough idling or stalling.
  • Poor acceleration.
  • Poor fuel economy.
  • Excessive oil use (more than one quart between changes).
  • Engine continues running after the key is removed.

Transmission

  • Abrupt or hard shifts between gears.
  • Delayed or no response when shifting from neutral to drive or reverse.
  • Failure to shift during normal acceleration.
  • Slippage during acceleration. The engine speeds up, but the vehicle does not respond.

Tastes like trouble?

Trouble Shooting

  • Alternator — Loose wiring can make your alternator appear defective. Your technician should check for loose connections and perform an output test before replacing the alternator.
  • - Corroded or loose battery terminals can make the battery appear dead or defective. Your technician should clean the terminals and test battery function before replacing the battery.
  • - What appears to be a defective starter actually may be a dead battery or poor connection. Ask your technician to check all connections and test the battery before repairing the starter.
  • - a loud rumbling noise under your vehicle indicates a need for a new muffler or exhaust pipe.
  • - The old-fashioned “tune-up” may not be relevant to your vehicle. Fewer parts, other than belts, spark plugs, hoses and filters, need to be replaced on newer vehicles. Follow the recommendations in your owner’s manual.

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